Still can’t sleep by day. Courtesy of Seattle Asian Art Museum

It's September 2010, and the provincial government of the North Chinese city of Jincheng is announcing a "high-level attraction plan" to "promote the city's industry upgrade." Workers in the industrial standbys—the coal mines and paper mills that have left the landscape ransacked and blackened—are no longer needed. Workers in cleaner fields like high tech will be paid a lump sum to relocate to Shanxi; they'll be the components of the new operating system.

This same year, artist Liu Xiaodong writes, "This time, I've decided, I'm really going home"—to Jincheng, a place he left as a teenager. Liu Xiaodong grew up to be a famous artist. His teenage friends grew up to become redundant. Every Chinese New Year, the artist comes home, but now he's "really going home." A camera crew follows him to make a documentary as he creates his portrait of the place in a project he calls Hometown Boy.

While Liu Xiaodong's been at the Venice Biennale, his old friends have been to prison and the graveyard shift. The first few paintings he makes upon his return go slowly. He admits that he's nervous. At one point, he sets up an elaborate tent out in the muddy fields of Jincheng, where he's doing a group portrait. Done for the day, he leaves the makeshift studio for the night—at night, they might drink, play cards, sing karaoke—until word reaches him that someone's set his tent, and his great unfinished painting, on fire. Visiting the scene of the crime, Liu Xiaodong gathers up the singed painting and seems to save it rather than throwing it away, but we are never told its exact fate, and the movie drops the subject, the hostile party never identified. The episode stands on its own as simply part of the project.

In Beijing, where Hometown Boy was first exhibited in late 2010, it included 26 oil paintings, more than 200 pages of framed diary entries—dotted with new and old photographs—and the full-length film. At SAAM, the film screens continuously, and a handful of paintings and drawings convey the flavor, even if you're left wanting more. Most are portraits of people, but a few aren't: a small, sorry scene of a former public swimming pool overgrown with weeds, a depiction of a bar of soap in a bowl of detergent in such appetizing colors it looks like a gourmet dessert. The metaphors of abandonment, cleanup, waste, and exhaustion are right on these surfaces.

"When making art about loyalty, I had a burden on my heart," Liu Xiaodong tells his award-winning director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

It's the ostensible closeness to subjects and scenes that fuels the fire of these pictures—the fire that infuses their vivid, sagging, Van Gogh–like appeal, and the fire that brought the literal destruction of one of them in progress. Liu Xiaodong paints rapidly on-site rather than using photographs. But his presence brings the same problems as any documentarian's does: You can document survival only when you're beyond worrying about it.

Still, the artist's sense of solidarity makes Hometown Boy different from his past works depicting homeless people, migrant workers, and prostitutes. These marginalized are his marginalized. He's sappy for them, and taken individually, each painting might be almost hokey.

"These brothers of mine are the forgotten," he says, quietly. (In terms of temperament, Liu Xiaodong is nothing like Ai Weiwei, the performer of dissidence who makes portraits of the marginalized.) "The working class is forgotten. However talented they are individually... they are a forgotten group. It unsettles me."

He wants to restore their individualities—over here, look at this journal entry with an old photograph of the same guy in that painting over there—but also to capture the environmental overlay, a blanket they're under as real as the smothering smog. Hence the woman by the pool table, looking tough, but with a surprising layer of worry still in her eyes. The former criminal who boasts (in the movie) that he still has gun lead embedded in his flesh appears in his painting holding his chubby baby in his withered lap. Liu Xiaodong saves certain details for drawings, others for painting, and still others for film. You have to watch the way the mediums work together and separately.

There are devastating moments brought about by these intersections of color, sorrow, documentary footage, journal descriptions, and thick, gloppy paint. One of the first paintings—one that went slowly because he was still so nervous—is Li Wu Works the Night Shift and Still Can't Sleep by Day.

Li Wu sits on the arm of the couch, a zombie in a striped shirt. Basketball's on TV. Soccer players in a crooked poster above him fight hard for a ball. The stripes on Li Wu's shirt are really cheerful, blue and orange in the shades of a tropical sunrise. He stares off into nowhere that good. From the way he looks, you can tell he's still in that moment in his life when he looks like himself as a boy. If he could just get some rest. recommended